On chicks, cheques and churlish chaps

Well if a major metropolitan newspaper was going to allow a chick to write for it, it was always bound to happen – that’s right, a female columnist giving a non-phallocentric appraisal of Tony Abbott’s ‘signature’ policy of paid parental leave.

Jacqueline Maley of the Sydney Morning Herald, whom I’m hoping appreciates my ironic use of ‘chick’ in the above paragraph (lest I receive a swift knee to the phallo-centre next time we cross paths), did the unthinkable over the weekend.

As a core member of what Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt calls the left – by which, if the ABCs MediaWatch is anything to go by, he vaguely means articulate people unafraid of disclosing their latte habit – Maley dared to take on her own readers, and the real left (the unions), by praising the policy as a step forward for feminism.

Where, asked Maley, were the socialists and feminist voices that should be congratulating Abbott for making nearly all new mothers better off? The business community does not want the scheme, but that does not usually stop the left praising such wealth redistribution.

Maley’s ability to resist group-think on this issue is admirable. Despite the best efforts of ideologues on both sides of politics, real reform tends to take the path of pragmatism, rather than transposing pages of dusty economics texts directly into Australian society.

I’ll admit that in past columns I’ve criticised the scheme as unaffordable, given that the federal budget is about to lurch $18 billion into the red in a year when it was supposed to deliver a $2 billion surplus – and given that corporate Australia’s profits are way out of kilter with the valuations they are being given by safe-haven investors through the ASX.

But Maley makes one overwhelmingly good point about the ‘millionaire mums’ scheme that taxes big companies 1.5 per cent of profits to pay for mums earning up to $150,000 to receive full pay for six months – hardly any women earn anything like that. She records that only 1.47 per cent of women earn over $100,000.

So are we to make policy based on our envy for a tiny minority, or for our hopes for the prosperity of the many? Unfortunately, the fixation on the rich few infects left ideology to such an extent as to threaten the prosperity of all.

Take, for instance, the reaction to the Coalition’s plan to develop northern Australia (not so much a plan as a vague ambition at this stage). Critics claimed it was all about making Gina Rinehart richer, but failed to engage with the idea that better infrastructure, more tourism, larger regional centres, diversification into new agribusiness ventures might actually be good for the economy and national security more generally.

So what’s stopping the left supporting Abbott? Essentially it’s the long-term strategy within Labor of painting him as a woman-hater based on a long history of outdated or clumsy utterances on issues such as abortion, contraception and the role of women in society – topped off by his damning “this government should have died of shame” comment in parliament last year that turned Julia Gillard’s impassioned ‘misogyny speech’ into a global YouTube and news media hit.

Abbott’s policy may be a cynical attempt to repair that damage with female voters, and judging by the opinion polls it seems to have done so. But a consistent left ideology would welcome it, no matter who put forward the policy. If Christine Milne suddenly came out in favour of nuclear power, wouldn’t proponents of that technology be shouting it from the rooftops?

Within the Coalition ranks it took right-wing upstart Alex Hawke to bell the cat, telling The Age that “people are pretty realistic that we can't afford big new taxes and levies at the moment”.

His comments are reminder that Abbott, as a policy pragmatist, is going to face a tough time mediating between wet and dry economic thinkers in his own party if he wins government. Right ideologues will put immense pressure on Abbott to deliver the fiscal restraint he is promising, and relieve business of any pressures he possibly can.

More moderate voices, and there are many, will see the folly of slashing spending into a downturn, and will accept the 1.5 per cent slug to big business as a bitter political necessity – despite the fact that the Coalition is counting on those same businesses to expand and take up the economic slack from lower public spending

It’s good to hear all sides of this debate, so Hawke should be applauded for speaking out. However for those who have remained silent, Maley’s article is a reminder that hypocrisy is wrong whichever side of the political divide you’re on. 

Connect with Rob Burgess on Google+